blog jam

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In recent months a lively – at times caustic – debate has been taking place online, regarding the sea change that is impacting wine criticism and journalism. It’s easy to call it a generational phenomenon, but it’s not. Bloggers, myself included, can certainly come from traditional backgrounds in print journalism. In my case, it’s not just print, but also broadcast (radio and television) and online media that have long been part of my personal work portfolio.

Blogging is new. As such, it is largely uncharted and unregulated. Old print media guys (and gals) who don’t blog may be feeling increasingly marginalized. Young digital/social media people may be a little intoxicated with the freedom (and in some instances the power) that the Internet provides.

I certainly do not have the magic crystal ball that will sort out who wins and who loses in the years ahead. But my media experience does suggest some signposts to keep an eye on.

Speaking specifically about wine-related writing and criticism, it is easy to see that the proliferation of blogs is a reflection of the ease of entry to the field. Back in the day, if you wanted to be a “serious” wine reviewer, you needed to be associated with a print publication. Generally, that meant a newspaper or magazine, and usually included a book or two along the way. Parker and a few others did an end run around the traditional media of the time by publishing newsletters. Most failed; his thrived.

Today virtually anyone can put up a blog about anything. There are no barriers to entry. What used to be the hard part is now the easy part. And vice-versa. In the past, once you jumped the hurdle to publication, you were set. Your readership was assured. For bloggers, there are no such assurances. You can “publish” your opinions, rants, reviews, critiques, whatever you want to call them easily... but getting people to pay attention is incredibly difficult.

Who has time to read all these blogs?

Well, a few people are making the effort, notably the folks at winebusiness.com. Their blogroll is highly selective, but once on it, you are guaranteed eyeballs. Someone on their staff reads through all the postings every day and highlights the most interesting and important. It’s a form of editing, and editing is a huge part of what is generally lacking online. In traditional media, it is editors who do the fact-checking; who ensure that opinion is differentiated from reporting; who form the impenetrable wall between sales/advertising and editorial/reporting functions. There is no such wall in the blog world, unless the individual blogger puts it there.

Yesterday, a blogger at goodgrape.com suggested changes in the focus and organization of a major wine publication (Wine Enthusiast magazine) for whom I freelance. Among the comments the post generated was one that was clearly libelous and completely false. That is where an editor should have stepped in. Eliminating libel and outright lies from any conversation is not censorship; it is essential to rational discourse. That is one of the many challenges facing bloggers who wish to opine about wine. Opinions need to be grounded in fact. Blogging is not an excuse to rant illogically and spread lies. I do believe, that a journalistic approach to blogging – old fashioned though it may be – will ultimately be a major factor in determining who succeeds and who does not.

5 comments:

Wawineman said...

I saw that lame shot against Wine Enthusiast also. Unfortunately, other "consolidating" websites automatically publish such undignified rant; so, are such sites also considered "irresponsible"?

I only read the first sentence and was turned off. I don't bother filling my head with negatives, unless it's from odd news of the world.

I think most bloggers do show restraint, at least from my comrades in the local community who I follow on Twitter. And, that leads to "responsibility" as it takes just one "misleading" article/review to jeopardize what little credibility I have with them, and vice versa. I freely make my disclosures and I do the basic research from reputable websites (eg. winery websites) and casual interviews and "wine patrols".

Personally, I think most of the wine bloggers have no interest in going "mainstream". There's no money in it. It's a hobby, albeit a serious one, even for me. If anything, we all still have that "little kid" within ourselves to emulate those we admire. In my case, it's you and Sean Sullivan and Shona Milne, and a few others.

Most of us wine bloggers are harmless. We're just sharing our fun experiences in a 21st century-style. A new way of making friends through common interests. I agree with most of your views on us "amateurs" and "non-credentialed" writers. However, I am just as attached to the "Woodinville Wine Update" and "Washington Wine Report" blogs because, like you, they're a fun, informative read in terms I can easily digest and from honest individuals I would clearly treasure a glass and a meal with.

Jeff said...

Hi Paul,

I did remove that offending comment, though I believe "libelous" is a strong word -- I think the more serious affront was it was anonymous -- and that was the reason I removed it, after the urging of your "call out."

It's hard to say if your first commenter is commenting on my post or the comment, but regardless I try not to be negative in anything I write -- instead, I present an opinion that is rationalized. Granted, not everybody may like that opinion or rationale.

I definitively agree with you that a journalistic approach is the best approach. Over the course of the last several months, in instances where it's merited, I've sought to secure direct quote attribution. Yet, because I write opinion-editorial, many posts need to stand alone as their own piece of thought. The best op-ed causes conversation, which is what I predominantly strive for.

Thanks adding your thoughts to the conversation and I wholeheartedly stand behind my opinion that Wine Enthusiast as a very ripe opportunity in front of it in a dynamically chaning media landscape.

Jeff

PaulG said...

Jeff,
I think you did the right thing taking down that post, and also the one attacking my colleague Steve Heimoff. Let's face it, we are all feeling our way in the bloggy dark here, and each of us must police him or herself. Transparency and full disclosure (see my latest post) are important steps. The ongoing dialogue that blogs engender can be terrifically helpful, but there are a lot of folks who just want to grind their personal ax and that places another burden – this time on readers – to have the knowledge and experience to be able to tell what is fact, what is opinion, what is slander, what is simply bile. Thanks for chiming in, and for running one of the most ethical blogs out there.

Keith J said...

Paul, thank you for this concisely reasoned look at the two universes and how they intersect (collide?). It is a bloggy dark, as you say, without question, and certainly results in a love-hate position for those of us who are busting our butts in the face of an incredibly challenging macro climate to select, market, and proudly stand behind quality wines that genuinely matter to us, both personally and financially. We used to know that a weak rating in WE or WS (or a snub by the Seattle Times guy?), in a worst-case scenario, was the risk that we would take by proactively submitting the samples and exposing ourselves to that possibility. Now one cringes when a forwarded link arrives from San Francisco as you sit down to the morning's mails, and your ancient world wines from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, for instance, are criticized as thin or uninteresting by a blogger who happened upon them somewhere and never actually spoke to you directly about the history, the reality, the intended rustic nature and the characteristics of the fruit in those bottles. How much damage might have been done in those hours before dawn that day? How many search engine optimizers have already grabbed keywords and jumped this drivel higher up the page?

My beverage industry journalism hero was and always be my friend, the late and seriously missed Michael Jackson. I think about him every day. He taught me how to listen to the histories, how to identify the stories that result in the bottlings, to truly understand the whos and the whys, not simply the whats. He never met a deadline that he cared to meet, and that allowed him to take the gentleman's approach even more fully with each piece - he moved slowly, he listened carefully, he told the truth, and he made lifelong friends and fans in the process. Sad to think that such behavior is tagged as old-fashioned. I consider it damn noble.

innerarchitect said...

Paul,

What is truly interesting is the differences between "long writing" and blog writing. Traditional journalists are experts at writing prose that describe, analyze, and provide opinion in a manner that paints a beautiful picture. This long articles are read by the public at their leisure, traveling to work, or during a break.

Usher in the Web 2.0 social media era. According to usability expert Jakob Nielsen, no more than "30 percent" of blog articles aka posts are read word for word to completion. Instead online consumers prefer skimming, browsing their content. They look to pick out keywords, they look for bullet lists, they want relevant points to jump off the page.

As you become more experienced here online, you will begin to see a pattern evolve. More people will read your work and comment when you perform the following:

1. Limiit articles to no more than 500 words with most in the 300 word range
2. Bold and use sub headings
3. Embed links within your text
4. Create Titles that are compelling
5. Utilize video, audio, and pictures to engage your readers

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